Naiza Khan, dubbed a catalyst on the Pakistani art scene, has recently been honoured with the prestigious Prince Claus Award from the Netherlands. Previously a faculty member at IVS and a pioneering member of the Vasl Artists’ Collective where she played a critical role in the development of local art infrastructure and international art exhange, she is now Professional Advisor at the Visual Studies Department of Karachi University. She herself studied at the Wimbledon School of Art in London, and at the Ruskin School of Drawing and fine Art attached to Oxford University.
The Prince Claus Award, established in 1996, supports artists, critical thinkers and cultural organisations in places where freedom of expression is restricted by conflict, poverty, repression, marginalization or taboos. It is presented annually to individuals and organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean for their outstanding achievements in the fields of culture and development. Naiza has been honoured for her strong body of work, which offers complex, nuanced perspectives on Pakistani society today, for her courage in raising public awareness on controversial social and political issues, for being a role model for women artists in a male-dominated context, and for her significant contribution to the development of arts and culture in Pakistan and its environs.
Asked how she felt about winning this award, she replied, “I’m very, very honoured, and I’m still thinking,’But what have I done?’ It’s very humbling and brings a very important spotlight onto contemporary Pakistan art.”
[quote]The story of ‘Moriro and the Whale’ has connections to Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai[/quote]
Her new collection, titled “The Weight of Things,” shown at Koel Gallery, Karachi in January and at Kuch Khaas, Islamabad in February and March, gave ample proof of her continuing artistic and intellectual progress. It was a multimedia show that included oil paintings, drawings, prints, photographic and video works as well as brass sculptures, all of these redolent of her engagement with the fragile landscape of Karachi and its surrounding coastal terrain. She offered a range of visual motifs, including the sea itself, the city’s urban and architectural details, the horizon line, historical documents and abandoned journals. Even the humble bookworm got a look in.
As to the title, with several pieces featuring a multiplicity of objects flying at random either through the air or through the universe, questions that occur to one are, where and what is the weight of things? Should we interpret “weight” as being synonymous with importance or meaning? The consciousness of place, the theme of land is strong in these pieces, land lost, land forgotten, no man’s land and land encroached upon. What weight does each type of land and object carry in Naiza’s scheme of things as she explores her beloved Manora Island on the outskirts of Karachi?
The piece titled ‘Constellations Adrift’, much admired and commented upon, is composed of over 100 objects cast in brass, and flying apparently at random through a universe composed of tangible things, rich in symbolism. It is somehow reminiscent of a sense of loss, and of the fading of precious memories, as well as bringing to mind all the man-made stuff floating about above us, and while disjointed, the profusion and sophistication of the individual pieces somehow forms a balanced composition. Apart from all else, as with ‘Secrets from a Nautical Almanac, 1966’, it underlines very strongly the extent to which Naiza is prepared to go in order to compose her artworks.
‘Constellations Adrift’ began with Khan picking up small objects cast up onto Manora beach along with her buying small things in Manora and elsewhere. With selected ones cast in brass, the idea of how they’d find relationships and create their own mythology when installed appeared – the whale and the helicopter, the oyster shell opening to release a multitude of scaffolding and domestic utensils. “Whenever I begin to weld pieces together I am amazed at the narratives that emerge,” says the artist.
Coming upon Naiza one morning before other viewers reached the Koel Gallery I enjoyed the following conversation with her concerning some of the exhibits
NJ: One really doesn’t know where to look first among your stuff. It’s so fascinating. But tell me, do you at any time use tea washes in your work? I’m sure I can smell Lapsang Souchong.
N: Not in the watercolours, but in the series called “Secrets of the Nautical Almanac, 1966”; It was a lot of fun, ageing the paper by staining it with 6-7 different brands of tea in different concentrations, Lapsang Souchong, PG Tips and so on, and then deciding what colour tone to use.
NJ: So that is not a series of photographs, then.
N: No, they’re relief prints. You see, I found these manuscripts at Manora Observatoy…
NJ: I think that Manora really got to you
N: Yes, I’ve been working there for the last 4-5 years. The books were scattered on the observatory floor. We rescued them and put them in the KPT office, and I returned to the observatory and started looking at the advertisements in the first dozen pages of the almanac. These were intriguing, kind of beautiful in their 1960s design aesthetic…and finally I started thinking about how I could recreate them through a print-making process. So each layer of the page – the bookworm layer in particular – was separated as a soft file, and the black and white image was recreated as a relief print, on a rubber plate, so that it could be like a woodcut, and put onto the Somerset paper.
NJ: M-mm … like great big rubber stamps?
N: Yes…and I wanted to use the bookworm as an active agent within the image. So there was an interesting process of dismantling the whole thing and putting it back together again, involving laser cutting amongst other things.
NJ: Why do you mention the bookworm layer? I’ve not heard this term before.
N: Well, there were bookworm traces on the original pages. So I separated this layer digitally, so that I could recreate these traces and produce text resembling them, using speeches of Ayub Khan as a background.
NJ: That’s fantastic. What an ingenious and painstaking use of modern technology!
N: Well, I pretended to be a bookworm myself, getting into its psyche.
NJ: It sounds a bit like “Alice in Wonderland.”
N: Yes, absolutely (both laugh)
NJ: From where have you used the effect of reflections in water in this collection?
N: Not from a specific source, but maybe from memory or from the idea itself. In some of the watercolours I think they certainly reflect the idea that what’s below the horizon line is not an exact reflection, but it’s about the idea that there’s something else present. I think in the image of “Landmarked” the idea of a militarised landscape emerged. This shows how media headlines influence you. That week the news was full of how the Rangers and tanks were moving in to control the Karachi situation, which was quite horrifying.
NJ: Yes, never to be forgotten. And this militarized look appears in other watercolours too. Well, let’s opt for peace and look at ‘Drawing Towards an Installation for Moriro’s Fossils’. Is this inspired by any particular literature?
N: Yes, it comes out of the story of ‘Moriro and the Whale’, with its connections to Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, and tells of a whale that comes to the waters of Kolachi. So it was written about the 17th century, and mirrors the idea of man against larger, predatory forces. Moriro, a disabled fisherman, tries to rescue his 6 brothers, swallowed whole by the whale in these waters. In that process he builds a glass capsule with spikes coming out of it. He lowers himself into the sea in this, and the whale shark swallows it, obviously getting the spikes stuck in its throat. Moriro emerges from the capsule, kills the whale from the inside, and bullock carts wheel the structure back to shore, where he buries his brothers ceremonially. This story fascinated me at a very early point in my research concerning Manora Island and its myths. And I was fascinated by the fact that at that time this Sufi poet had such a vision, predating the submarine and other deep sea apparatus that we know of today.
Then I wanted to create something apropos of all this, not just a static object, but a large installation, perhaps on Manora Beach, having within it small screens showing short videos of conversations that I was recording on the island, with people talking about the space, what life was like, what it’s like now, and what they envision for the future.
NJ: What do you hope for from viewers?
N: As an artist, I feel that I’m on a journey. And this specific body of work is very close to my heart – as all my work is, but in a different way. And so I think my expectation is to engage people into enjoying, loving or hating, agreeing or disagreeing with the imagery that I’ve created. This is what art should be about. And I hope that people would get a sense of where I’m going, and perhaps take a piggy-back on it, on this road that I’m on, looking at the city and all that arises out of what I’m reading, seeing and so on.
NJ: Are you concerned with cause and effect?
N: What do you mean when you say “cause and effect”?
NJ: Well, I’m influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, and its teachers tell us that karma is a law of cause and effect. And besides personal karma there’s national karma. And I think that neglect and abandonment of land and buildings, such as at the Manora Observatory, corruption, short-sighted policies leading to big national problems, lack of rain and so forth caused by lack of control over deforestation – these are some of the causes, and we are labouring under their effects, as part of our national karma.
N: I think this is about disorder, things being unhinged, about objects and emotions, and life generally being thus affected. I’d been working on the idea of a map and I realized that the first drawing was actually a cloud of dust. And the geography of this city is really on sand, isn’t it? Our ground is shifting sand dunes, so the boundary of the map, the edge of the city, is also constantly shifting.
[quote]If you were lying in your tent, after one hour you’d just be part of the landscape[/quote]
When I began work on the drawing, “How we Mark the Land becomes Part of its History,” I was reading the memoir of an old British soldier stationed in Karachi in the late 1830s. In one passage he says that if you were lying in your tent, after one hour the sand would cover you, and you’d just be part of the landscape. And I felt that the dust storm is very interesting in that it’s made up of little particles and how can particles come together to form certain images? And they’re just phantom images, in a cloud. Conceptually it’s quite intriguing, and I’m looking forward to taking it further.
NJ: What is most frequently said about your work? I feel as if I’m pointing a gun at you in asking this. (Both laugh.)
N: I’ve always had wonderful responses, readings and insight into the work. But a certain gentleman has often said to me, “Naiza, you really make the viewer work hard.” And I’m quite pleased with that comment. I do want the work to be visually appealing, but if I can raise some questions in the viewer’s mind that’s very important.
NJ: Which artist has influenced you most?
N: I think that over the years one moves through many different ideas. Various artists have been important to me, whether Rembrandt, Hokusai or more recently Marlene Dumas, and now I’m looking a lot at international projects where artists are working with space, and the city and urban theory. So there’s no fixed point, but I get a lot from work which is direct and sincere, not overly processed or overly intellectualised.
NJ: What is the place of love in your work?
N: That’s an interesting question.
NJ: Yep (laughter)
N: It’s a very, very central part of my work. Emotion, gesture, love is a very central part of it. I work with things not “out there”, but very much inside of me. So even if something is recognizably about the city, or a dust storm, there’s always a personal resonance from where it starts.
NJ: With so much thought, feeling and so on behind it, how long did it take to put his exhibition together?
N: Actually, this whole body of work started in 2007, then the paintings began shortly before last summer, and that was when I started casting objects for the sculpture piece, the videos go from 2009 to 2012.
NJ: Certainly a mammoth task. What’s your favourite piece in this exhibition?
N: It keeps changing. I’m really excited about the oil paintings, and also by the large drawings.
NJ: Have you seen any of the exhibitions produced by Aamir Habib and Taqi Shaheen? They’re also very deeply concerned with social issues, political ones, too.
N: Yes, I have, and I really liked some of their work shown at Canvas Gallery. Their work is quite different, and I like the way they project news, media content.
NJ: Your piece Merry-Go-Round, inspired by a real merry-g-round in Manora rather resembles a spider’s web, makes me think of how we may get trapped by something purporting to offer us pleasure and fun. And it’s another creature from the past of a place once a part of the ancient city of Debal that guarded Sindh from invaders, I believe, and was connected to the coast by a spit that was later named the Sandspit.
N: Yes, and there are even stories of Alexander the Great coming to these shores.
We then stopped before a most informative video featuring the Manora Observatory, hearing part of a weather report from 1939 , concerning storms, a hurricane and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean, along with details of lives lost, livestock or agricultural produce lost in every city or area. “It was one example of how the British classified everything. And on another level it brought together a sense of geography which no longer existed post-Partition, with mention of names like Brahmaputra, Darjeeling, Assam, Cacutta, Sukkur, Lahore, Karachi all together” commented Naiza. It was also quite nostalgic to hear an old-style weather report, simple and direct, free from gimmickry of any kind, and to see the ruins of the observatory, an old and dignified, purpose built structure, sadly neglected.
This is a phenomenal body of work, and surely we can look forward to much, much more arising out of this compassionate, deep-thinking woman’s work on Manora Island. Her philosophy regarding ruins, her love for the people of the island, the remains of the Talpur Fort, the contrast between the navy locality with its sparkling white choona and manicured hedges and the rest of the island including the multi-religious structures, in its state of neglect and decay may som eday be set before our wondering eyes in a magnificent collection. Says Khan, “(Much) is rendered through the words of early explorers, writers and poets. I wonder why not visual artists?”
Noor Jehan lives in Karachi, and is a student of Tibetan Buddhism